By Mary Meehan Lexington Herald-Leader
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Several savvy entrepreneurs in Kentucky are tapping into a certain kind of hipster Kentucky vibe in order to grow and build digital audiences. Will they be able to monetize their efforts with the people who want to connect with "all things Kentucky"....time will tell. Lexington Herald-Leader Josh Johnson, aka The Kentucky Gent, makes his living as a digital influencer. Heather Watson has a career celebrating the modern Kentucky woman at HerKentucky.com. And Mindy Rohr uses her Love, Lexington Instagram account as a love letter to her hometown.
Each found a social media niche that started with a passion for Bluegrass chic. Their enthusiasm, coupled with the explosion in the national interest in bourbon, has created a cultural moment for Kentucky.
There is something about the Kentucky brand that seems to draw people, said Watson. The allure of all things Kentucky has roots in 2012, the year Kentucky for Kentucky launched a rogue state tourism campaign dubbed Kentucky Kicks Ass on YouTube. That has grown into a retail celebration of all things Kentucky for Kentucky.
That national splash -- it ultimately got almost 100,000 views on YouTube in addition to coverage in national press like ADWeek -- helped put a certain kind of hipster Kentucky vibe out to a wide audience. By extension it helped give Watson, Johnson and Rohr an opening to add to their twist to that digital conversation.
The three built their followings with frequent posts, retweets and online conversions to keep people coming back. And each of them then laid claim to their slice of the Internet and 20,000 plus followers apiece through some combination of Facebook, a blog, Instagram and Twitter.
None of them began with a vision to take over the digital world. Johnson worked a fashion retail job that took him places like Las Vegas and New York City where people seemed astonished that here was a hip, chic, well dressed man from, gasp! Kentucky.
He started sharing fashion and lifestyle posts on his blog as well as personal stories about being young and gay in Louisville. He wanted to show that Southern boys can be out and have style, he said.
Soon he found an ardent following. For about 18 months now his work as a digital influencer has been a full time job.
He describes his blog as "the worldwide web's Gateway to the South." He's branched out from fashion into men's grooming, and there's even a section on the blog called "homestead" that deals with things like vacuuming and what kind of art to put on the wall.
As The Kentucky Gent, his wanderings are followed by his 24,500 followers on Instagram. He makes money from consulting and sponsored posts where he touts the benefits of the brands he loves. He's also reached a level of notoriety that means he is turning down unsolicited swag.
"I've got enough clothes," he said.
Watson and Rohr share Johnson's passion, if not the original derision. The women started their blogs and social media efforts as passion projects. Watson, who is based in Louisville, said she found a like-minded audience eager to know more about Kentucky food, culture and charitable organizations, so she focuses on events as well as fashion.
But she has a reach across the state because as a Prestonsburg native she has shared such down-home adventures like a visit to Jenny Wiley State Park.
The blog got a bump in 2015 when she wrote about a connection between Lilly Pulitzer, then launching a line at Target, and Mary Breckinridge, the founder of Kentucky's Frontier Nursing Service. Pulitzer, as it happened, had been a volunteer on horseback for the Eastern Kentucky group of nurse midwives. It was one of the biggest single posts on her blog that attracts 129,000 page views a year.
Watson, 40, works full time on HerKentucky and does social media consulting work. She has a business model built on selling advertising that appears on her site, media and event appearances and sponsored partnerships. But she also has a background in online research and expertise in search engine optimization that helps her attract readers. Currently she has nearly 20,000 followers on social media.
That technical education is the foundation, but Watson also has a knack for knowing what her readers may want before they do. For example this March she shared her recipe for chocolate pecan pie with Maker's Mark well in advance of most Derby party planning.
The challenge with social media, in addition to having a work ethic to sustain a growing brand, is making the hard work behind the scenes invisible.
After graduating from Eastern Kentucky University with a degree in psychology, Rohr wanted to create a lifestyle brand that reflected her personality. She started out focusing on fashion but soon branched into blogging, and posting pictures about local food and events. She has gathered 23,000 followers on Instagram as well as loyal readers to her blog.
She thinks her college sorority rush has helped her learn how to be upbeat and connect, especially with Instagram users. That, she said, coupled with a conversational writing style, makes her posts seem breezy and easy, and that's what people want.
A Lexington native, Rohr, 35, said her genuine love of her hometown helps followers connect with her. People are looking for a feeling of community, she said, and can sense if someone isn't genuine in what they post.
Rohr recently moved to Birmingham to work for Bayer Properties which is developing The Summit at Fritz Farm. But Love, Lexington will continue although her interest may continue to grow and become regional. But, she said, she'll always be a Kentucky girl and will continue to curate Market 301, a monthly event in Lexington highlighting Kentucky products.
She hopes, maybe, her passion project could become a full time job.
People often assume that the seemingly effortless style Johnson puts out via his social media is just that, he said. But there is time, planning and thought behind every artful fashion shot. And, he said, creating a public image can make having a private life a challenge.
Watson and Rohr both said they are careful not to post live from many events to avoid unwanted attention. And all three agree that there is a real world trade off for social media fame. A feeling of always being on display can be difficult. Johnson, for example, took a day off from social media for real world reflection following the tragic shooting at a gay club in Orlando.
Rohr said there are plenty of nights when she'd prefer to stay home but goes out to get that next fashion photo or try one more unique Lexington restaurant.
But, for now, the benefits of their successful social media efforts far outweigh the challenge.
Johnson, 27, however, is looking ahead. He is expanding his brand with purpose in part, he said, because he knows his peak years as the face of his brand won't last forever. His ultimate goal? He hopes to use his digital fame to create a unique, brick and mortar retail space.